Home again after eighteen years Down Under

After 18 years of research on reptiles and amphibians in Australia, Mats Olsson is back as a professor at the University of Gothenburg, where it all began.

Mats Olsson’s smile beams at me just like the April sun this afternoon, and his suntan indicates that not much time has passed since he returned to Sweden.

“Australia is a wonderful country, but it feels terrific to be back.”

After Ph.D. Studies at the beginning of the 1980s, he spent five years in a postdoctoral appointment in Sydney, and then returned to the University of Gothenburg as a research assistant. After six years on home turf, it was time to choose between working in Sweden or abroad. Olsson’s interest in specific animal groups played a major role in the choice. “Having been involved with reptiles and amphibians for my whole life, I naturally was attracted by a country where there is such a diversity of different species.”

A major part of Olsson’s research has dealt with investigating the factors that determine the likelihood of paternity with various males in the reptile and amphibian animal groups. Olsson explains that the work in Australia consisted of a lot of time in the field out in desert areas, but also work in the lab.

“I always try to combine both of them. We can solve more technical problems in the lab, while we look at long-term problems, such as ecological sequences of events, in the field. It’s exciting.”

But it was not only the exotic animal culture that attracted Olsson to Australia. The number of teaching hours was also an important consideration.

“In Sweden the number of teaching hours that are included in doctoral positions is considerably greater than abroad. I thought that it was too early to wind up with such a heavy teaching load that I would risk not being able to continue with research.”

“It’s not that people don’t like to teach. Many think that it’s extremely rewarding. But unfortunately there is too much teaching. You also have to have time to write papers and give lectures — in other words, things that qualify you. If you don’t have time to become qualified in research, teaching takes on a negative connotation.”

There also are other major differences between doing research in Australia and Sweden. Olsson notes that the most drastic change associated with the move to Sweden is the number of doctoral students. At universities in Sweden, there are very few doctoral students compared to universities in Australia. That is something that Olsson thinks is a real pity because social interaction with other doctoral students helps ensure good development and helps make research enjoyable. A frown wrinkles Olsson’s brow when discussing the situation.

“As matters now stand, I don’t understand how we’re going to be able to sustain the research community in Sweden when we don’t have any doctoral students.”

But research in Sweden also has its advantages. Olsson speaks avidly about how doctoral studies is better in Sweden, with both the course and literature requirements, something that other countries lack. He emphasises that graduate courses are incredibly important for completing a doctoral degree sufficiently well qualified and grounded to be able to stand on one’s own two feet. Even so, he still feels that travel is a good experience.

“I can recommend that all graduate students and researchers should venture out and broaden their horizons.”

When I ask why Olsson wanted to come back to Sweden, his face breaks into an enthusiastic smile.

“I thought it was time to decide to grow up.”